Access by Various artists

6

Jim's Truth

by Russell Brown

I've had a bit to say of late about YouTube, its algorithms and the escalating allure of certain facile "creators" to young men. I worry about this stuff. But I think it's also important to acknowledge that the alt-lite and alt-right grifters exist within a much broader and more diverse culture.

My son James Rae Brown has grown up watching and listening to the first-person communicators of YouTube. They are basically his television (but not his movies – actual movies, he goes to several times a week). And in them, from ranty movie geeks to cultural commentators and neurodiversity advocates, he has found community and identity.

Since 2011, he has also beeen a YouTube creator himself. He has 3300 subscribers and is closing in on two million views, although more than half of that total is his wildly popular edits of the Persona 4 animated series. He has posted movie reviews and various other ruminations, all in vlog format. But he's never made anything as important as A Trip to Beach City.

It's the story of how, as a young autistic man, he struggled with disappointment, anxiety and depression – and how a strange cartoon series called Steven Universe really helped him. Of the whole series my favourite is episode 9, where Jim does a deep textual dive into Steven Universe and marvels at how a cartoon story about "magical space lesbians" could have resonated this way with him.

"Come at me, homophobes!" he cracks, and it just seems so distant from the shitty, narrow, resentful "advice" being churned out to young men by the likes of Jordan Peterson.

But that's not the best thing. The best thing is that Jim has grown up with other people telling his story. We made the decision as a family to be open about ourselves and our two ASD sons in the hope that it might help others in the same position. Jim took that on board, and it was the reason he put up with a fair bit of stress in allowing the Attitude documentary Jimmy Wants a Job to be made about him.

And I know, because they told me, that it did help other families. I cried a little when a dad I know told me about sitting down with his own ASD son to watch the documentary, and his son saying "This is the first time I've ever seen myself on TV."

But this is different. This is my son telling his own, unmediated truth, in a way he might not have been able to even a couple of years ago. He does it with skill, frankness and not a little humour. I'm really proud of him.

4

You just need a sense of humour

by Hilary Stace

“You just need a sense of humour”. I heard this patronising and unhelpful advice from a panellist at an Autism New Zealand Conference many years ago. What about access to education and services, understanding, financial and other support?

These words came back to me when I received the following email from my friend Helen* earlier this year. Helen’s adult autistic daughter Alex has high and complex needs and various support workers come in and out of their lives. Helen has a painfully damaged back from years of hard physical caring work. Their old family friend Ben has a new rescue beagle puppy called Happy. Somehow Helen retains a wicked sense of humour. I have her permission to share this summer story.

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The support workers used the old Mitsubishi for a few days when they first came back after the Christmas holidays. They went to visit someone they knew at a farm and showed Alex all the animals.

The farm owner very kindly gave them a tray of 20 fresh free range eggs. In the old Mitzi, as it’s a station wagon, there’s nowhere Alex can’t reach. So the eggs went under the car seat. They forgot about them.

The heatwave was due so they wanted to use my little Honda for its air conditioning. I had hurt my back and couldn’t drive so it wasn’t a big deal.

In the meantime those 20 eggs sat under the car seat in a locked car parked in the full sun for several weeks until we found them last Monday.

We decided they would be well and truly decomposing and the best thing to do, was to bury them deep into the compost heap.

It was the deepest hole ever dug on my section. Even old black and white puss didn’t get such a deep hole when he died.

Tonight ... God comes calling at the front door. Three Mormons. Poor Ben couldn’t get rid of them and called me.

With great difficulty, I was trying to change the sheets on my bed. Bed making and sore backs aren’t good companions. I’d got the clean top and bottom sheets on ... the new pillowcases ... and was half way through getting the duvet on.

Ben calls me in despair ... to get rid of the godly trio. I left my bedroom door open, my biggest mistake ever.

Meanwhile, Happy the rescued beagle cross pound pup had dug up all 20 of the rotten eggs. He got them out, breaking the lot. He rolled in them ... he was in dog muck heaven.

THEN ... he snuck inside through the back door, saw my bedroom door wide open and a clean bed. Happy loves beds. Happy is the laziest young pup I have ever known.

In his little peanut brain, he must have thought all his dreams had come true. Rotten eggs to roll in and my best linen and a bed just waiting for him.

You have no idea of the smell and mess when I got rid of the God botherers. I could smell it from the front door.

The linen all came off ... the dog got a bath ... and Alex drank the remaining approximately 500 mls of dog shampoo.

I had to ring the Poisons Centre. Ben had to take Alex to A&E for a chest X-ray, as my back won’t allow me too.

I’m left at home with the Mucky Happy. My poor timid Bo, our black labrador, senses the atmosphere isn’t too great. He’s currently hiding.

Meanwhile the cause of all the trouble is damp and fast asleep, lying across the entire sofa.

The end.

*Names changed.

2

Crip the Lit’s new publication 'Here we are, read us: women, disability and writing'

by Hilary Stace

Crip the Lit (#CripTheLit) was formed in 2016 in Wellington to provide a space for Deaf and disabled writers to tell their stories within mainstream New Zealand literature and writing generally. It seeks to give a platform to and publicise the work of disabled writers, and to provide authentic and diverse portrayals of disability.

The first CriptheLit event was held in 2016 as part of Wellington’s annual LitCrawl (whereby numerous literary events are held around the city in one weekend) at the disability-friendly CQ Hotel. That occasion featured memoir writing and subsequent events have included readings and a debate.

Here we are, read us is a recently launched booklet featuring eight women including writers of fiction, poetry, essays and blogs. 

In a few succinct words each touches on their work and motivations, accompanied by a hand-drawn and themed portrait.  The writers are Tusiata Avia, Steff Green, Helen Vivienne Fletcher, Charlotte Simmonds, Michele Leggott, Trish Harris and Te Awhina Arahanga. Last listed is Robin Hyde, reclaimed as a disabled writer by joint editor and CripTheLit founder Robyn Hunt.

Some mention the influence of their impairment on their lives and writing. For example, joint editor Trish Harris’s piece begins: "I am a part-time crane operator. Every time I unload my power chair from the car, the tilt of the ground affects the swing and balance of the hoisted chair."

This free publication leads the way in accessibility over multiple formats including in large print, Braille, as an e-book and audio file - all freely available within a Creative Commons licence. My only niggle is that I would have liked to have some sort of bibliography or reading list of author works to follow up with. But that’s why we have libraries. It has been funded by numerous organisations and supported by Arts Access Aotearoa.

This link tells you how you can get a copy.

30

The long road to real space

by Russell Brown

About a year ago, my younger son asked me if I'd like to play a video game. I'm really not a gamer, but he wanted me to see it and he was happy to make it easy for me by working the controls so we could concentrate on the content.

It was Finji's brilliant interactive narrative Night in the Woods, which tells the story of college dropout Mae Borowski as she returns to her hometown and tries to pick up her old life. It's a story of millenial drift and rustbelt decay; subtle, political and and sometimes deeply touching. I really liked it and I started to care about the characters and even got half-competent with the controls. All the way, my son wanted to know what I thought of it.

We talked about what I made of the game's themes and when we finally finished up after a couple of weeks' gameplay, he told me why he'd been so keen for me to play.

"I relate to Mae," he said. "You know, early twenties, stuff in the past, no direction in life."

I suddenly realised that he'd involved me in the game as a way of telling me something. And of course he'd employed gameplay to do it. Since we had to pull him out of school at the age of 12, video gaming has been his culture. His long discussions with his former tutor, Matthew Dentith PhD, often started with something from a video game: morality, war, classical mythology. He has a deep understanding of video games and it's both technical and aesthetic. It shows in the occasional expert-level game reviews he writes.

My son, like his older brother, is ASD – autism spectrum disorder – and I suspect possibly ADD too. (I kind of think Mae Borowski is neurodiverse in some way too, but I was careful about saying so – the terms are unfortunately stigmatised in the gaming culture, where "autistic" can be a trash-talking insult. Also, fair play: how he defines himself is his choice.)

He's highly intelligent, but school, the human noise of it, had him in more or less constant fight-or-flight mode. His skin would be hot to the touch most of the time. It must have been horrible. What a way to live as a child.

Since we pulled him out of a school system that couldn't offer what he needed, his great achievement has been to create an environment around him that's devoid of the anxiogenic elements that were making his life hell. This means he doesn't leave the house a lot. But, over the long haul, he's changed from the distressed kid who had near-daily violent meltdowns into a polite, thoughtful young man. I really admire what he's done.

But he knows he has to get on with it. The question is: get on with what? His affinity for gaming and facility for computers has led us down a lot of blind alleys. Something would seem promising and he'd pull the pin on it, as part of the same anxiolytic defence system he's developed to make his life bearable. Maybe there was some fear of success in there too, I don't know.

But something has happened in the past year: Warhammer. He's begun to collect and, more importantly, paint Warhammer figures. His painting is fine, subtle and brilliant and, it seems, much more important than the actual board gaming. It's revealed something in him that's been missing over the years – the ability to plan and work over time. It's also a form of character creation and development. When we tried him on a digital design course, he had no trouble with the software but got frustrated because it was going to take so long to get to the part he was interested in – the characters.

But mostly, of course, it's a chance to do something in real space. We've discussed it and it might be the way forward. He was pretty interested in the news that there is an actual job in the film industry called "model painter", but also in simply learning more skills of this kind. Things might have been different had I been a different sort of dad, but outside the kitchen, I'm not well wired to work with my hands.

I've partly written this post to make the point that not every autistic person, even if they're good with computers, is automatically a coder. I often think that's not well understood. But also because we're wondering about introductory workshop courses, setbuilding, maker groups and the like – or even just connections with grown-up geeks who like to do that kind of thing. He has plenty of online friends, they voice-chat across oceans and that's all good. But we're looking for real things in real space, and new skills around them.

I don't really know where to start, but I'm open to offers and suggestions. And if it does work out, well, I'll thank Mae Borowski. I hope that, in some virtual future off the end of Night in the Woods' narrative, she's doing okay now.

NB: Feel free to comment here, but I'm also keen and happy to get emails. Just click the little envelope icon below the post.

22

The stories the Royal Commission needs to hear about state care abuse and disability

by Hilary Stace

In the 1960s a New Zealand woman gave birth to a baby boy with Down Syndrome. There was no celebration at the birth and the family GP told the parents that the best thing would be to put the baby into an institution where he would be looked after, to forget about him, and try for a "normal" baby as soon as possible. He warned that the family would be shamed by the baby as it indicated faulty genes and other family members might not find partners if there was a risk of producing a "mentally defective" child. That was the insidious conspiracy theory of eugenics.

The mother loved her son and wanted to keep him. But one day the family doctor and a staff member from an institution came to take the baby. The mother was instructed not to visit for at least two years to help her forget about him. Of course she never did, but visiting him was difficult and several years later she heard that he had died. 

That child was one of thousands of children coerced from their families and communities and sent to one of several psychopaedic or psychiatric institutions across New Zealand in the middle decades of the 20th century. There were so many that the profession of specialist psychopaedic nurse (nurses for children with intellectual or learning disability or other impairments in the institutions) was a New Zealand invention in the 1960s. 

Survivor stories such as in Robert Martin’s 2014 biography, Becoming a Person recall various types of physical, emotional, sexual, medical, spiritual, cultural abuse and neglect. The 2017 report for the Human Rights Commission called Institutions are places of abuse: the experiences of disabled children and adults in State carewidens the picture. Although there were some kind staff, clothing, housing and routines were communal and individual identities denied. Children were sometimes shifted around institutions or in or out of foster care without understanding why. 

Documentary-maker Gerard Smyth talked to several former residents of Templeton Hospital for his 2004 documentary, Out of Sight out of Mind who were trying to make sense of their decades of institutionalisation. Their crime was having a disability or learning impairment or just being poor. Some were bussed there as pre-schoolers and didn’t leave until they were in their 60s. 

When the institutions started to empty – the last was Kimberley in 2004 –some families discovered a new or missing member. Other survivors shifted into residential care in the community without family or identity apart from sparse notes in their institutional files.

This historic abuse by the State and its agencies affected thousands of individuals and families. There are several categories of victims: the disabled children; the mothers and fathers; family members who were denied a sibling; clinicians, staff and policy people who believed they were doing their best (or just following rules); a New Zealand which let it happen.

A Royal Commission was the last of the 100 day promises of the new Government. Ten months later the Royal Commission and its secretariat  is established and preparing to start hearings in the New Year. My initial impression is that, although full of good will, it is heavy on legal representation and light on lived experience of disability or understanding of the toxicity of eugenics, or its lighter prejudice ableism. However, it is a victory to see former Disability Rights Commissioner (and sometime Access author) Paul Gibson as one of the Commissioners 

Will that elderly mother of that stolen child know to register with the Commission and get a chance to be heard? I’m not sure how the old lost men in their group homes will find their way to the flash offices in Lambton Quay to tell their stories. But I hope they do.